Freedom to roam: New Zealand by campervan

Well. It’s official. For the next three months I am officially living in my car.

No, this vagabond hasn’t fallen on hard times (yet), but rather, I am going to be embedded in the back of a 1995 Toyota campervan in the magnificent country of New Zealand, where, for the record, summer is just beginning.

While this isn’t my first campervan endeavor around “The Land of the Long White Cloud”, my first visit was as a single, immature 22 year-old fresh off of university touring the country with two other reckless American counterparts. Three boys, three surfboards, one decrepit 1988 Toyota Hiace, and the open road beneath our tires. It was the epitome of freedom.

Five years later, the circumstances of my New Zealand campervan expedition are decidedly different. Still immature but now a happily married 27 year-old, the reality of this contrast was brought to my attention at a supermarket where I had purchased some groceries five years prior. Gazing down at the black conveyer belt at my current purchases, I realized the 12-pack of beer and surfboard wax had been replaced by a 12-pack of toilet paper and 200 thread count sheets.

So why would a struggling, married travel blogger scraping to pay off student loans decide to up and move his wife to live in a van in a foreign country? Because in a land as scenic and rife for exploration as New Zealand, there is unfinished business to be taken care of.

So why buy a van? Why not just rent a car like most other vacations? Because even though buying a vehicle is an enormous layout of money up front ($4000 cash. Ouch.) you start recouping that money the minute you set out on the road. In the end, with a little cunning and a fair bit of luck, touring New Zealand by owning your own campervan is the undisputed most economical way to experience the somewhat pricey country.Though C- was the unfortunate bedfellow of my math classes during most of my childhood, allow me to lay out a few figures regarding the financial logistics of buying a van versus renting one during your campervan foray throughout New Zealand:

The over/under on renting versus buying is probably around three weeks; For a stay of under three weeks, flipping a van in that amount of time is simply impractical. For a stay of longer than three weeks, renting a van will incur charges through the roof, as evidenced by the $7800 quote given for my upcoming stay of two months.

Secondly, it’s a campervan, key word here being camp, an activity that New Zealand is incredibly well-suited for. Although I’m a proud American and a huge advocate for our National Park system, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) oversees a network of huts, campsites, parks, and preserves which stands somewhat above that of the US system.

Average price of a DOC campsite? $7. With the cheapest hostel beds in the country running around $20/person for dorms or $50/night for a private room, over the course of 60 nights, you’re theoretically recouping a minimum of $40 per night, a sum which quickly adds up whether you’re renting or buying.

Finally, when you own a van, provided you don’t get it stuck in a river, drive it off a cliff, or experience any major mechanical issues (always a calculated gamble), upon leaving the country you have the option of selling the van back to the next traveler looking to drive and camp their way through the country.

So how do you go about buying/selling a car when you arrive/depart New Zealand? While the country has online classified sites such as Trade Me, Gumtree, and Backpacker Board, a decent percentage of vans change hands at the Backpacker’s Car Markets in Auckland and Christchurch. Sellers pay a fee of $85 for the privilege of being able to hawk their car on the property for 3 days, and buyers have a whole market of options to choose from.

Nearly all vans have been converted to include beds elevated on platforms to allow for storage of bags beneath, and most vans also come with a full range of camping and cooking supplies included in the price of the van. An important logistical note is that you’re going to need to place a phone call to your bank to let them know you’ll be conducting transactions from outside the country, and to also temporarily lift the daily limit on your ATM card so you aren’t left pulling out a maximum of $600 for seven straight days.

So, after three days of haggling, multiple test-drives, a curious encounter with an elderly German named Volkor, and lengthy sessions spent under the hood acting as if I actually knew what I was looking for, we finally settled on a 1995 Toyota Lucida with a nice comfortable bed already embedded into the back.

All that’s left to do is fuel her up, cross our fingers we didn’t buy a lemon, and head out on the open road.

Now where did I put those sheets…

Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan for the next two months touring the country of New Zealand in the new series Freedom to roam: New Zealand by campervan.